The year 2008 will not be remembered for noble or heroic acts. Yet, amidst the news reports over the past few months of financial fraud, bloodshed in India and Gaza, and global economic disasters, one item stood out for its bravery. On Dec. 10, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, more than 300 Chinese citizens, ranging from law professors to farmers and even some government officials, put their names to a remarkable document: Charter 08.
The signatories, later joined by thousands more, asked where China is heading in the 21st century: "Will it continue with 'modernization' under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system?"
There is nothing incendiary about Charter 08, no call for violent rebellion, no thirst for revenge. It merely asks for what citizens of all liberal democracies take for granted: the right to question government policies, protection of human rights, an independent judiciary and multiparty elections.
The model for Charter 08 was Czechoslovakia's Charter 77. In 1977, several prominent signatories, including Vaclav Havel, were arrested as a result. Likewise, one of the most lucid Chinese intellectuals, Liu Xiaobo, was arrested in December for signing Charter 08, and has yet to be released. Other signers have been interrogated.
Charter 08 has not received the attention it deserves. There is also a tendency, not only in China, to dismiss such calls for democracy as irrelevant, even misguided. In China, and other remaining areas of Asian authoritarianism, it has become customary, even among some self-professed "liberals," to argue that democracy may be fine for Europeans and Americans but is unsuited to Asian conditions. China is too big, its culture too different and its population still too poor and uneducated to support a democratic system.
Others claim that China has its own kind of democracy, based on a Confucian idea of government benevolence and the Chinese people's cultural propensity to sacrifice individual rights to collective goods. To those who take this view - and, on this point, many Western businessmen are in complete agreement with the Chinese Communist Party - the signatories of Charter 08 are simply out of touch with their own culture.
In terms of its immediate impact, it is true that Charter 08 will hardly make a ripple in the pond of Chinese politics. The government will not even discuss the charter's ideas, let alone do anything to implement them. But this is no reason to call it irrelevant. In 1977, few people would have predicted that Mr. Havel would preside over a Czech democracy. He and his fellow dissidents were a tiny minority, too. A liberal democratic China may not come soon, but, after Charter 08, no one can deny that many Chinese desperately want it.
The expression of this desire is especially important now that the world is gripped by a terrifying economic crisis. The Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on power can be justified only by continued rapid economic growth. Few people, even party members, still believe in Marxism-Leninism, let alone Maoism.
The Communist government managed to stay in power after the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989 not just through brute force. A semblance of political legitimacy, especially among the educated middle class, was purchased with the promise of greater wealth. As long as people felt they were getting richer, demands for democracy could be postponed.
But if this arrangement collapses and increasing material prosperity can no longer be taken for granted, many unpleasant things could happen. Rural areas and industrial cities might explode in massive riots. While the government might be able to crush such disturbances, a loss of confidence among the middle class would be more serious. Militant nationalism, partly encouraged by nervous rulers, might be one consequence. Attempts by the military to stem unrest by taking control of government might be another.
If there were no alternative ideas to one-party authoritarianism, military rule or nationwide chaos, the future of China would be very bleak, indeed. But there is an alternative. It has been set out eloquently and persuasively in Charter 08. If China manages one day to follow the example of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan and join the "mainstream of civilized nations" by establishing a liberal democracy, then Dec. 10, 2008, will go down in history as one of the key dates of its conception.
Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. His most recent book is Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance .